DDO: Menace of the Underdark and Turbine's Incredible Staying Power

Dungeons & Dragons Online will get its first full expansion--six years after its original release.

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Blizzard and BioWare seem to get all the attention from the press anymore. But there was a time when all eyes were on a trio of massively multiplayer games called "The Big Three:" Ultima Online, EverQuest, and developer Turbine's Asheron's Call.

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Then came the so-called second-generation massively multiplayer online games. And leading the charge was Turbine's Asheron's Call 2: Fallen Kings, a gorgeous, inviting, and streamlined game that sadly didn't achieve great success--even though it blazed trails that other games cheerily barreled through later.

Before World of Warcraft, Turbine had already created a similarly accessible game of its own.

And though Asheron's Call 2 is no longer active, it appears we needn't worry about Turbine's other two prominent projects, Dungeons & Dragons Online and The Lord of the Rings Online. For years, Turbine has been quietly setting standards for every aspect of MMOG design. Before Star Wars: The Old Republic was lauded for its storytelling, Turbine had already proven its own masterful narrative techniques. Before World of Warcraft was lauded for its welcoming design, Turbine had already created a similarly accessible game of its own.

So don't look so shocked that Turbine has announced the first full expansion for Dungeons & Dragons Online, called Menace of the Underdark. You may not have seen it coming, but the announcement isn't so bizarre when you consider the source. Since 2006, the game has seen plenty of growth, including that seen in 2011. In fact, let's run down a few of the milestones Dungeons & Dragons achieved in 2011:

Bonjour: The game went free-to-play in Europe and was released in French- and German-language versions.

Happy Anniversary!: Dungeons & Dragons Online celebrated its fifth anniversary with an event introducing new challenge quests. (Not that major content updates are anything new: a major update is implemented every few months in DDO.)

Piling On the Riches: The game saw an entirely new crafting system, new level-15 to level-20 content, two new raid dungeons, new challenges, leaderboards, and a new class: the artificer. (For the uninitiated, this is a ranged combat/pet class iconic of the game's Eberron setting.)

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Could you possibly question Turbine's commitment to Dungeons & Dragons Online, all things considered? Suddenly, Menace of the Underdark doesn't sound so implausible. As for the expansion itself, executive producer Fernando Paiz and senior producer Erik Boyer gave us a rundown of what to expect in Menace of the Underdark, which is due to launch sometime in the summer of 2012. What's the most noteworthy addition, you wonder?

The Forgotten Realms.

Indeed, fans will be delighted to finally get the chance to inhabit The Forgotten Realms. The new adventure begins in Eveningstar, but it won't be long before you discover the threat that Lolth poses to the Realms. Who is Lolth? She's queen of the spiders, goddess of the drow--or to a novice, an enormous spider-lady with a webbed bodice, flowing white tresses, and fingernails long enough to rip giant gashes in your pitiful, shivering flesh. Menace of the Underdark shall certainly provide the right tools to face Lolth, however, whether you prefer to stick with your current class or start over as (hooray!) a druid, the newest class to come to Dungeons & Dragons Online. And it's about time, too: who hasn't loved playing previous D&D games as a nature-loving, shape-shifting druid? (Author's note: I profess a great affinity with the druid class and am pleased as can be that it's finally making a belated appearance.)

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Who is Lolth? She's queen of the spiders, goddess of the drow.

Menace of the Underdark also introduces a new level cap: 25. This may not sound that high, but in DDO, you earn rewards at mid-level thresholds, so don't assume you will be rewarded at a sluggishly dull rate. Most of the expansion's content will be for such epic-level players, though 2012 will bring more updates outside of the expansion. Turbine will celebrate the game's sixth anniversary with a free adventure pack featuring a new storyline. Additionally, you'll be able to collect cosmetic pets--that is, creatures from D&D lore that you can earn and buy. They won't be helping you in combat, but you can outfit them in cute gear and show them and their adorable animations off to your friends. Sound like sugar overload? Turbine thinks you'll be pleasantly surprised at just how much fun these pets really are.

And so Turbine appears to still be leading the way. Without fanfare, without hype--just always doing cool stuff. Maybe Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark isn't really your thing. But given Turbine's depth and breadth of development know-how, there's a very good chance that something else it's doing is. As for the DDO faithful, they should be rightly pleased with the chance to explore the Forgotten Realms as a druid--a dream many of them have shared for some time.

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